Teens who spend hours on social media report these behaviors

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Teenagers who spend more than three hours a day on social media are more likely to report high levels of behaviors that may indicate mental health problems compared to adolescents who do not use social media at all, according to a new study.

The study examines the time adolescents reported spending on social media and both internalizing and externalizing behaviors.

Internalizing behaviors can involve social withdrawal, directing feelings inward, or difficulty coping with anxiety or depression. Externalizing behaviors can include aggression, acting out, disobeying, or other observable behaviors.

Use of social media for any amount of time associated with both a greater risk of reporting internalizing problems alone and concurrent symptoms of both internalizing and externalizing problems, the researchers say.

The study found no significant association with social media use and externalizing problems alone. Teens who spent at least three hours on social media a day had the greatest risk for reporting internalizing problems alone.

“Many existing studies have found a link between digital or social media use and adolescent health, but few look at this association across time,” says lead author Kira Riehm, a doctoral student in the mental health department at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School School of Public Health.

“Our study shows that teens who report high levels of time spent on social media are more likely to report internalizing problems a year later. We cannot conclude that social media causes mental health problems, but we do think that less time on social media may be better for teens’ health.”

The use of social media has both health risks and benefits. These platforms often provide ways to connect with peers and information and resources on causes important to them, but there are risks of cyberbullying and other digital aggressions.

As reported in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers used a nationally representative sample of US adolescents ages 13 to 17 from the federally funded Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health Study between 2013 and 2016. The study collected data over three years, and the analysis involved 6,595 respondents. Each year, researchers asked participants how much time they spent on social media as well as questions pertaining to symptoms of internal and external mental health problems.

The findings showed that:

  • About 17% of adolescents said they did not use social media
  • 32% reported spending less than 30 minutes
  • 31% reported spending 30 minutes to three hours
  • 12% reported spending three to six hours
  •  8% reported spending more than six hours per day

Researchers also found that:

  • About 9% of participants reported experiencing only internalizing problems
  • 14% reported experiencing externalizing problems only
  • 18% reported experiencing both internal and external problems
  • 59% reported no or low problems

The study found no links between social media use and mental health problems and gender.

“Social media has the ability to connect adolescents who may be excluded in their daily life. We need to find a better way to balance the benefits of social media with possible negative health outcomes,” says Riehm.

“Setting reasonable boundaries, improving the design of social media platforms, and focusing interventions on media literacy are all ways in which we can potentially find this equilibrium.”

Source: Caitlin Hoffman for Johns Hopkins University